"All be one"-John 17:20-26, Sermon for Easter 7
So I love stained glass…surely it is a part of traditional church décor. It is valued by Episcopalians and Christians from many different traditions. It is also valued by other religious traditions. I have seen breathtaking stained glass windows in synagogues and mosques alike…just as in so many churches. It is truly a form of art that inspires and instructs…that connects us one to another as we take delight found in enjoying together something beautiful. Stained glass also often tells a story…our shared story as God’s people…the stories found in our scriptures and the lives of the saints who lived their faith brightly…with God’s love shining so clearly through. Thus using light and color and artful design, stained glass points to something greater, that which shines through it. Therefore, in addition to being an inspiring art form, stained glass is a sign and symbol pointing us and all to God’s great light and love that shines like glass through us…filling us with beauty and wonder...shaping and forming us into one people…the saints of God…that can only together, as one complete work of art, really paint a picture or tell a story of our one true God, who is love…who is the Father and Mother of us all.
Perhaps you know the story of our two stained glass windows here at St. Julian’s. But on St. Julian’s Feast Day, I believe it bears remembering. After, together, we created this new church home…I always felt like something was missing. There were those two great, white open spaces on either side of our sanctuary that to me were beckoning to be filled…and perhaps because of my love of stained glass the way it connects us to the people of God in all places and at all times…I felt if we could find the right two pieces of stained glass that worked together…that perhaps they would be the perfect something to fill the space. Well a very casual search ensued…and I suppose at some point along the way, though I don’t recall the moment specifically, I mentioned my idea to my mother-in-law, Mary. Well out of the blue one day around Christmas my phone rang and it was Mary…my mother-in-law, not Jesus’ mom. She was antiquing in Gruene, Texas with her sisters and she had found something I might be interested in. She saw one of the two stained glass windows now hanging on our walls…and thought they might be close to what I was looking for…so she went to the owner of the shop, Black Swan Antiques, and asked if by chance he had a second. Sort of a shot in the dark if you will. Well sure enough he said he did…out in the barn…behind the shop. So she asked him to tell her their story…what he knew about them…where they might be from. He said he didn’t know much…he had picked them up at an antique auction in England. He said the one thing he was sure of is that they were from a church in Norwich, England. Our own Patron, St. Julian’s, home, Norwich, England. When she told me this…I told her we would take them. Now they are not likely from St. Julian’s Parish Church in Norwich…the church in which Julian was an anchoress and actually lived for some thirty years and wrote her classical spiritual work, “Revelations of Divine Love.” But from Norwich…nonetheless…close enough. So for me these windows have, like stained glass in general, become a point of connection…a sign and symbol or our connection to Julian…and really to the people of God in all times and all places across the centuries…a connection to our shared history…our shared story. They remind me that we are indeed one…one with each other…one with the saints of God…one in a shared life that finds its center in the meal we share each week at this altar…and one with our one true God…the Father and Mother of us all.
And this idea of oneness seems to me to be the central theme or character of our gospel lesson today. This reading comes from Jesus’ great prayer offered at the last supper…offered in the hearing of his beloved friends and followers…and memorialized in perpetuity in John’s Gospel that we all might be blessed to hear it…like Jesus was even praying it among us today…for us today…for surely it is as much for us today, as it was for the disciples in the upper room on the night before Jesus’ passion and the Easter that would follow. The prayer memorializes for us Jesus’ most intimate desire and profound hope for his beloved people…all of us…those in this room…for all the saints of God throughout time and space…and really…really for all people…for all of God’s children…for again God truly is Father and Mother of all. And so what is Jesus’ chief plea in his prayer…what seems to be his most intimate desire offered in this grace filled and loving prayer? Well…if I can speak simply…the answer again seems to me to be that we all may be one…just as Jesus is one with God…that we all might be one…and the thing, the minutia, the glue that binds us all together according to Jesus…the material that makes oneness possible…like the lead grouting that holds stained glass together…is our love for one another…which is God’s love that shines through us and binds us…into something that we can authentically call one.
Now I don’t want to be naïve about this very Christian, and profoundly important idea of oneness…Jesus prays for it…Paul proclaims it…but unity is hard work…and that might be the understatement of the year. Our world is indeed sorely divided. The church is indeed sorely divided. I heard once that there are over 17,000 Christian denominations alone registered with the IRS…not including other religions…and the number may even be larger now…and of course a significant number of people now claim no religious affiliation about 25% of us or so in the US. And way more significant, painful and damaging are the divisions that exist beyond religion…divisions over politics, over race, over life-style, and represented so dramatically in income inequality. Like a glass bowl dropped on a cement floor…we lie scattered in hundreds of thousands of pieces…shards of glass exploding a great distance from the point of impact. You can sort of see the little pieces all over the place glistening in the light. And there are so many reasons for this…I couldn’t begin to touch on them all…and indeed many are philosophically beyond me.
But I do think…as it applies to us…to those who make up St. Julian’s…there might be two ideas worth reflecting on…as we gaze on the shards of glass glistening all around us…two small things to think about and even work on…as we seek the unity that Jesus prays for…and show a different way of being community for the world around us…something that mirrors a little more perfectly the oneness of God. And the first is for unity to overcome estrangement…we have to deal with our disagreements up font, directly and graciously. As one of our Core Values at St. Julian’s states, “We are a community that demonstrates trust and respect for one another by a willingness to share honestly, listen, be vulnerable and negotiate difference with love and grace.” This sounds totally awesome…but come on, it is really hard…it is so much easier when in disagreement or conflict to walk apart…to surround ourselves with those who are like minded…to keep looking for that pie in the sky community where everyone agrees with me. It is so much more challenging…but so much more rewarding and wonderful…to stand in unity with those with whom we disagree…to value conversation…as a means of conversion…not to the same opinion on all things…but conversion as a matter of the heart…where we learn to love and value one another in the midst of our differences…appreciate one another’s opinions and deeply held beliefs, even if different than our own. And this requires being overwhelmingly generous in giving one another a voice, listening to each other, forgiving each other, engaging, not avoiding, but engaging one another when in disagreement or conflict…being satisfied only once reconciliation is achieved…and thereby falling in love with one another…more and more.
And the second way unity can indeed overcome estrangement is by intentionally focusing on what we share in common first rather than what divides first. For indeed we share so very much…from the need to be loved and to belong…to our faith that God is love found in the face of Jesus. We share a common cup and common bread that bind us together over shared table fellowship that doesn’t minimize our differences but reminds us of the hopes and values we hold in common…and that indeed bind us together. In fact, I believe as we focus first on that which we we share and hold in common…not only are our differences not minimized…but they began to be seen in a different light. Not things to change about each other…but unique gifts and experiences that are worth naming and celebrating. By beginning from a place of recognizing what we share, we begin to be able to embrace and appreciate unity in diversity…appreciating both…which allows us together to be more rich and complex…to be as Desmond Tutu says the rainbow colored people of God…to tell a larger and more interesting story…that indeed says not only something about who we are in our oneness…but something about who God is…what God looks like…the ultimate oneness that is the bright shining light of love.
Which takes me back to stained glass. Now I dig my margarita glasses that I bought in Mexico…they are sort of a copper-ish, bronze color. I like the color of the glass. But what allows stained glass to tell a story, to paint a beautiful picture, is the very fact that the glass is not just one color…it is many colors…coming together. The glass must be…must use many different colors to tell a story…every color is needed and valuable. The various colors and hues come together and begin to paint a picture…to tell a story of the people of God and the life of love we live together…even now…and throughout the ages. And the wonder of it all is that this particular medium for creating something beautiful, that is it being glass, is that it requires something beyond itself to really show off its true colors…to shine in all its glory…to make its story intelligible and inspiring…and that of course is the light that shines through it…God’s light…the light of God’s love…that illuminates all of our different colors…that indeed work and come together into one complete work of art…a work of art that we can only be together. No color left out…no person left out…only together, in all our uniqueness…in all of our colorfulness, can we speak of and show the world the unity of our one true God…the Father and Mother of us all. Amen.